Volume XXXVI, Issue 3, December 13, 2013
“Hi, my name is Cassandra, and I’m with the campaign to win marriage for gay and lesbian couples. Is that something that you support?” A year ago, if you’d told me that I would be doing work that involved politics, teaching, talking to strangers, and coming out as queer, I would have laughed. Ten months ago, my friend, who interned with Rhode Islanders United for Marriage, dragged me to a phone bank. I was terrified, hating the way my voice shook and how I couldn’t get through the script smoothly. I thought, “I’m never doing this again.” But I was also a barely out, insecure young bisexual woman trying to get more comfortable with my identity, and I felt obligated to do my part. So I went back anyway, and before long I found I was enjoying myself. RIUM was made up of the most amazing people I had ever met.
When the campaign ended in a victory in May, I didn’t want to lose the activist community I had found. I reached out to friends from RIUM, who had by then dispersed to other states, and offered to run remote phone banks for them from campus. They would send me scripts and software for making calls, and I would train volunteers to call into other states. Things worked out, and now, every Sunday at 3:30, I pack up headsets and scripts and prepare to talk about marriage equality. I head downstairs to the first floor of my dorm and get ready to teach my peers how to have phone conversations with strangers from far-off states.
One of my contacts was a field organizer on the RI campaign. When we spoke on the phone, she warned me that recruiting from pride alliances was often a waste of time, as such organizations are usually so focused on socializing that little energy remains for activism. She advised me to look elsewhere for activists on campus, but I wanted to give it a chance.
In late October, I attended Amherst Pride’s joint meeting with UMass. I was all abuzz from the victory in New Jersey and excited to help Illinois in the very final days of their campaign. I wanted a really big turnout that weekend, because one of my favorite organizers from RIUM is from Illinois, and I knew she was counting on that victory. At the meeting, I passed around a sign-up sheet for volunteer recruitment, and in a room of fifty or so LGBT+ people and their allies, I got it back with exactly one signature.
I was shocked. I knew Pride wasn’t going to be my strongest target group for recruitment, but I was still expecting some interest. At first I thought it was something I’d done, but since then I’ve thought a lot about what else it might be.
Before I turn to Amherst specifically, I’d like to address some reasons why a pride alliance would drift away from activism on marriage. Among most young queer people, there’s an understanding that marriage is only one of many challenges that our community faces, and that within that range, it’s not the most important one. Marriage tends to be the lens through which the outside world views the LGBT+ community, and it’s already been thoroughly discussed, particularly in a state like Massachusetts. As a result, within pride groups, there’s often greater concern with covering less mainstream topics like gender, homophobic and transphobic bullying, queer representation in media and culture, the potential tensions between LGB+ and trans* people in the community, and a whole host of others. In the face of all this, marriage often takes a backseat—and justifiably so. All those topics are important and will become even more so, as recent victories turn marriage into more of a decided issue.
Now, to Amherst. In some ways, I attribute the apathy here to a regional attitude. Massachusetts has had marriage equality for nearly ten years now, and it’s difficult to convey the urgency of LGBT+ issues in a state that takes their resolution for granted at this point. Amherst, as a moderately liberal institution within a very liberal state, is in the position to treat gay rights as no big deal. Unfortunately, that exacerbates the tendency of LGBT+ folks to regard marriage as a secondary issue. It also generates a certain blindness among straight folks to the many challenges that our community faces throughout the country. I’ve had to remind people more than once that there are thirty-four states where marriage equality is not the law of the land.
Still, there is something unique about the indifference I’ve encountered here, compared to the other experiences I’ve had with student activism. When I mentioned to my high school Gay-Straight Alliance that I was doing work with RIUM, they wanted in. Almost everyone in attendance signed up for a shift. The campaign also had the full sup- port of Brown University’s community, and we ran weekly phone banks from their campus. Often, thirty students would show up in one shift. Again, some of that activity can be explained by location within the campaign state. However, it’s notable that back in Rhode Island, remote campus phone banks (like the ones I’ve been running here) from other states made up 20% of our campus efforts, and 6% of all our volunteer success in the last few weeks of the campaign. Those are significant numbers, and they prove that even out-of-state phone banks can make a large difference.
So what is it about Amherst? I can only speculate. We have a subdued activist community in general, particularly compared to more radically liberal schools like Brown. That indicates that part of the problem is not rooted in Pride or the queer community here. It is, however, interesting to note that many queer people who aren’t in Pride have gotten really invested in phone banking, and that disconnect is troubling. Does Pride have a reputation for not being involved enough in queer activism? Is it that people don’t have time to phone bank? Is it the muted activist presence? I honestly don’t know. Either way, activism does not seem to be high on the group’s agenda.